It’s wrong to assume that innovation requires close quarters in the office. Here’s why. | So Good News


opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors themselves.

Apple, Google, and other companies that require employees to spend most or all of their time in the office claim that any amount of remote work will stifle innovation. According to Apple CEO Tim Cook, “Innovation isn’t always a planned activity. It’s about bumping into each other throughout the day and pushing an idea you already have. And you really have to be together for that.”

But is it true? On the one hand, MIT research has found that remote work weakens the cross-functional, inter-team “weak ties” that form the basis for the exchange of new ideas that tend to foster innovation. A Microsoft study similarly found that telecommuting stifles innovation because workers connect less with people outside their teams.

On the other hand, the McKinsey study points to a different conclusion. It found that more than two years into the pandemic, 150 global patent filing authorities had a record number of new patents. Moreover, in 2021, global venture capital more than doubled compared to 2020, increasing by 111%. McKinsey predicts that as these innovative companies develop new ways to bring together remote workers to create and maintain the cross-functional, periodic connections necessary for innovation, they will thus expand the pool of minds that generate new ideas. Deloitte similarly shows how adapting the innovation process to remote settings holds the key to increasing innovation for hybrid and remote teams.

Related: Fostering Collaborative Culture in a Hybrid and Remote World

My experience helping 21 organizations transition to hybrid and remote work shows that innovation is possible. But this requires adopting best practices around the weakening of cross-functional ties and lack of natural spontaneous interactions that drive innovation. Unfortunately, companies like Apple and Google have adopted a traditional view of how to innovate, which stifles innovation.

A great way to innovate in hybrid and remote teams involves relying on collaboration software like Slack or Microsoft Teams to replace casual hallway chatter for fostering innovation. What you need to do is set up a dedicated channel to facilitate the creativity, spontaneity, and collaboration behind random innovation in software, and encourage employees to use that channel.

For example, in a late-stage SaaS startup that used Microsoft Teams, each small team of six to eight members created a dedicated team channel to share innovative ideas about teamwork. Similarly, large business units have created channels for ideas to be applied throughout the business unit. Then when anyone had an idea, they were encouraged to share that idea on the appropriate channel.

We encouraged everyone to pay attention to the announcements on that channel. If they see a new post and find the idea relevant, they will respond with additional thoughts based on the original idea. The answers snowball, and enough good ideas lead to the next steps, often a brainstorming session.

This approach combines a native virtual format with people’s natural motivations to contribute, collaborate, and receive credit. The original idea poster and subsequent contributors are not motivated solely by the goal of promoting the team or business unit, although that is certainly part of their stated goals. The initial poster is based on the ability to share an idea with some modifications that may be considered innovative, practical and useful for implementation. Participants, in turn, are motivated by a natural desire to give advice, especially to others in their team, business units, or even the entire organization, which is visible and useful.

Related: Six tactics for improving collaboration for remote teams

This dynamic lends itself well to the different personalities of optimists and pessimists. You will find that the former usually publishes the original ideas. Their strength is innovative and entrepreneurial thinking, but their weakness is not risking potential problems with the idea. In turn, pessimists serve to develop and improve an idea, point out its potential flaws and help eliminate them.

Remember, the contribution of pessimists should not be underestimated. It’s all too common to overemphasize initial ideas and overreward optimists – and I say this as an optimist who has 20 ideas before breakfast and thinks they’re all great! Through a combination of personal experience and research on optimism and pessimism, I learned the need to allow pessimistic colleagues to test and refine my ideas. My clients have greatly benefited from the highly rated prospects of such a devil’s advocate.

Therefore, you should praise and reward not only the generators of innovative ideas, but also two or three people who contributed a lot to the improvement and completion of the idea. That’s what a late-stage startup company did. Group or business unit leaders made sure that the original idea generators and idea refiners were publicly recognized for their contributions and that they were given bonuses commensurate with the value of their contributions. Indeed, some of these ideas have spawned patent applications.

While this method helps to solve the problem of spontaneous interaction, what about the weakening of cross-functional ties? To help solve this problem, as well as improve the integration of recent hires, we have implemented a hybrid and remote mentoring program for our SaaS company.

Several mentors participated in the program. One of the recently hired employees came from their own team. This mentor helped the mentee understand team dynamics, on-the-job learning and professional growth.

However, we also included two mentors from other teams. One of them came from the same structural division with junior employees, and the other came from a separate structural division. The role of these two mentors was to integrate the new employee into the broader company culture, facilitate cross-team collaboration, and strengthen the “weak ties” between company employees to help foster collaboration.

Six months after these two interventions, the SaaS company reported a significant increase in innovation. Channels for innovation have helped create a number of new projects. Mentor-mentee relationships led mentees to take a fresh and creative perspective on the company’s existing work, and external mentors helped stimulate productive conversations within teams that fostered further innovation and collaboration.

If a late-stage startup with 400 employees can use these techniques, so can Apple and Google. Of course, some tasks can be done in person, such as sensitive personnel conversations, intensive collaborative discussions, key decision-making and strategy conversations, and exciting team-building events. However, the more tasks you can do remotely, the better. The future belongs to companies that can effectively use their human resources around the world while minimizing wasted time during busy times. This requires adopting best practices rather than remaining at the forefront of hybrid and remote work.


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